TCM Pick for November: Pre-Code
There was something special about Constance Bennett. I don’t know what it was. Maybe it was her air of sophistication. Or the way she pronounced the word “can’t” like “cahnt.” Or her perfectly coiffed blonde bob. Or the way her face somehow seemed to be the perfect embodiment of the 1930s.
Whatever she had, I have to say I was thrilled to learn that she was TCM’s star of the month – I can’t get enough of her pre-Code films. The one I’ve seen the most often, The Easiest Way, is airing on Tuesday, November 6th (Election Day!) on TCM – and I’m tickled to offer it as my pre-Code pick of the month.
The product of a poor, working-class family, Laura Murdock (Bennett) finds a “easy way” out of her impoverished existence when she lets her boss, Will Brockton (Adolphe Menjou, playing a particularly unlikable character), become her “sugar daddy.” Before you can say “Bob’s Your Uncle,” Laura is sporting pearls and furs and delivering her fancy hand-me-downs to her little sister in a chauffeur-driven limo. But a romantic monkey wrench is tossed in the midst of her cushy life when she falls for a charming newspaper reporter, Jack Madison (Robert Montgomery).
My favorite scene is the first one – an awesome non-stop whirlwind of activity that provides a perfect introduction to Laura and her family. It begins as the camera spans the apartment of the sleeping Murdocks, finally stopping at the bed occupied by Laura and her two sisters, Peg (Anita Page) and Tillie (Elizabeth Ann Keever). We hear an alarm clock buzzing and Tillie awakens, slaps Peg on the rump, and then uses both feet to shove Peg over, causing a chain reaction that causes Laura to tumble out of bed. Seconds later, Tillie gives Peg another double-foot attack that knocks her to the floor, and the two siblings begin fighting. “Oh, can’t you girls cut that out for one morning?” Laura asks wearily. Before long, the entire household is awake – patriarch Ben Murdock (J. Farrell MacDonald) shaves at the kitchen sink while lecturing his teenage son, Andy (Jack Hanlon) about why he should leave school and go to work, and mother Aggie (Clara Blandick) is at the stove cooking breakfast and pouring coffee while Peg scarfs down a bowl of oatmeal, grouses about the heat and her factory dressmaking job, and tells her father, “You better change your bootlegger – you got a peach of a hangover this morning!” Later, Aggie leaves the kitchen long enough to rouse Tillie from bed and send her on an errand to buy butter – when her mother awakens her with a sharp slap, Tillie threatens, “I’m going to tell the Children’s Society on you, Ma, and I hope they take me away from you!” Soon Tillie is crying, Laura is turning down her oatmeal in favor of a single piece of toast (“Well, well – high-hattin’ the vittles!” Peg snarks) and complaining about Tillie wearing her hat (“Aw, I didn’t hurt it – you want me to go out in the street bareheaded?”), and Aggie is berating her husband because of his failure to keep a steady job.
Into this chaos steps Peg’s fiancé, Nick (Clark Gable), a strapping, hard-working, girlfriend-squeezing, grammar-mangling fella, who cheerfully chats with the family before blithely tossing Ben Murdock a bundle of shirts that he laundered for free. Finally, as Laura leaves for work, she descends her front stoop in time to see her two youngest siblings scrapping over a nickel tossed to them by Nick. She pauses, considers breaking them up, then shrugs and heads down the street in the opposite direction.
“I don’t wish anybody any harm. But I’d like to sit in a taxi and bump that guy off when he was crossing the street.” Elfie St. Clair (Marjorie Rambeau)
“If you lose out now, it won’t be long before you’re picking up men in speakeasies. You’ve got to grab your happiness now. A pretty girl like you is just prey for men. They cater to our vanity, they make us think they love us – well, they don’t. They don’t love anything but themselves and their own selfish pleasures. Use your brain. This life isn’t a romance for girls like us – it’s a game, with the men holding all the trumps. They like to look upon us as some animals they’re proud to own. You gave Brockton everything he paid for . . . What men don’t know don’t hurt them. You love this boy, he loves you. Now save that love – fight for it, lie for it. But save it!” Elfie St. Clair (Marjorie Rambeau)
Constance Bennett was the older sister of actress Joan Bennett. She was also the aunt of New York talk show host Morton Downey, Jr. (his mother was Bennett’s middle sister, Barbara). One of her five husbands was actor Gilbert Roland, with whom she had two daughters – Lorinda and Gyl. Her fifth, final and most successful marriage was to Gen. Theron Coulter, an Air Force officer; after their marriage, the actresses earned accolades for coordinating shows flown to Europe for occupying troops and the Berlin Airlift. Her last film was Madame X, starring Lana Turner. She died at the age of 60 and is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
The Easiest Way was directed by Jack Conway, who started his career in front of the camera, appearing in numerous shorts and full-length films between 1908 and 1935. He also helmed such first-rate features as Red-Headed Woman (1932), one of the pre-Code era’s most scandalous films, Libeled Lady (1936), Boom Town (1940), and Julia Misbehaves (1948).
Laura Murdock’s sister, Peg, was played by Anita Page, another one of my favorite pre-Code actresses. She starred in The Broadway Melody (1929), the first sound film to win the Academy Award for Best Picture, and she was married for less than a year to songwriter Nacio Herb Brown, who wrote the music for “Broadway Melody” and a number of other well-known tunes, including “You Are My Lucky Star,” “Temptation,” “All I Do is Dream of You” and, with Arthur Freed, “Singin’ in the Rain.” Anita Page retired from films in 1936 and died in 2008 at the age of 98.
The film contains a rare (for the time) hint about the harm caused by cigarette smoking. Jack Madison tells Laura that he is recovering from a recent illness brought about by “not enough sleep, too many pretty ladies, too much bootleg, and far too many of these,” he explains, holding up a cig.
The film was based on a play by Eugene Walter, which opened on Broadway in January 1909. When once asked about the play, Walter said, “Incidentally, I do not think much of it. To my mind a good play must have a tremendous uplift in thought and purpose. “The Easiest Way” has none of this. There is not a character in the play really worth while . . . it is rather devilishly clever, but a great work it certainly is not.” Despite the author’s dismissive remarks, the play was well-received – it played for six months upon its initial opening, and another 63 performances in a revival in 1921.
Robert Montgomery became a feature film director and TV producer in the 1950s – he directed such films as Ride the Pink Horse and Lady in the Lake (both 1947), and produced his own long-running television show, Robert Montgomery Presents. His daughter was Elizabeth Montgomery, of Bewitched (and Lizzie Borden!) fame.
Bennett’s mother was played by Clara Blandick, best known for her role as Auntie Em in The Wizard of Oz. After attending church on Palm Sunday 1962, Blandick – who was nearly blind and suffering from painful arthritis – wrote a note saying that she was about to “make the great adventure.” She then proceeded to commit suicide by taking sleeping pills and then pulling a plastic bag over her head. She was 81 years old.
Famed magazine columnist Hedda Hopper played a small, uncredited role in the film.
After you vote, be sure to check out The Easiest Way – it’s a good one!
You only owe it to yourself.